Page Two

Page Two
The constant talk at parties among a certain segment of the city is "lost Austin" -- how things are no longer how they used to be. Those nostalgic for the old days, however, should just read editor Richard Oppel's recent editorials in the Austin American-Statesman to be reminded just how wrong-headed that paper used to be, notably in the early Eighties and early Nineties. It's as though the past half-decade barely happened. According to Oppel, the source of our city's problems is once again the overzealous environmental community; now they're blamed for the high costs of housing and the ridiculousness of the development process. It makes me want to dust off our SOS yard sign.

The city's development process sucks. It is a joke from top to bottom. It creates burdens for individuals as well as small and big developers. There is no argument about this. One city office will okay something, and another will change the requirements later. This is standard operating procedure, not a unique instance. Any time a developer wants to get a state legislator worked up about Austin, he just has to tell him true stories from the development process. A frequent plank of most City Council candidates is reforming the planning process, aka the Land Development Code. The current council, drunk with the gains of an exploding economy, has become preoccupied with grandstanding projects instead of rolling up their sleeves and reforming this troubled process.

Oppel, however, has chosen to attack just one little cog in the overall development process -- the Water and Wastewater Commission. The process is deeply flawed, but by looking at this tree rather than the forest, Oppel managed to identify the guilty parties, and -- surprise -- they turned out to be those darn environmental zealots.

This also was the charming theme of the monopoly daily throughout the development wars of the last three decades. The rallying cry used to be that the environmental movement was killing the city's growth, and the SOS ordinance was the final nail in the coffin.

Our argument, on the other hand, held that protecting the environment wasn't an optional indulgence. A city is defined in many ways -- geographically, philosophically, economically, socially. One thing at the heart of this city is its extraordinary natural environment, coupled with the community's passionate commitment to its continued well-being.

Now, the city's most aggressive pro-growth forces have reluctantly come to admit in the last five years that the community's commitment to the environment has been, not a deterrent, but a primary cause for such ridiculous growth (we'll entertain the levels of contradiction here at some later date). The environmentalists were right. They said vision would pay off economically, and it did. They pointed out that uncontrolled growth would create traffic problems and harm the city's infrastructure. And look what happened.

But get ready -- in its new version of "Austin, The Good Old Days," the Statesman is laying the groundwork to blame the high cost of housing on the environmental community. Before the Eighties boom, Austin often won national rankings as one of the most affordable cities. This situation changed with an early Eighties growth spurt that saw the cost of living spiral upward. Prices receded somewhat during the bust years, only to rise again with the current ongoing boom. The economy drives the housing market. Oppel's argument that there would be affordable housing for all if it weren't for the environmental community seems a particularly cruel fiction. Though the issues are essentially unrelated, the enviros have consistently lobbied for affordable housing programs, and have fought to get those elements included in major developments from downtown, to Mueller, to the Triangle, to East Austin.

It's great to see that same old Statesman when it comes to assessing the soul and intelligence of this city.

Next week, some more thoughts on this, and on the imminent closing of Steamboat 1874. And also, we received a surprisingly large number of submissions for our romance column in the "Personals" section, and we'll bring you up to date on the column's status next week.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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